when I was about ten years old, my father and his friend built a deck on the back of our split-level ranch house in Warren, New Jersey. It was a good-size deck, perhaps fifteen feet deep
and about eighteen feet wide, designed to maximize party space. The entire perimeter was one large and continuous bench, allowing for ample seating. Throw in a few chairs and you could have a party with thirty or forty of your closest friends. And party we did. No celebration was greater than the dual graduation bash we held in 1986 for my brother Duncan (high school) and me (college).
The problem? The deck wasn't anchored so well, and as we cut the twin cakes (one iced in black and orange, my school colors; the other a vibrant green for my brother's), the damn thing separated from the house and collapsed to the ground— with about forty people on it. It was a six-foot drop, and it happened in three distinct moments: The end closest to the house went first—I remember a spectacular cracking sound as the slim supports suddenly gave way, dropping us down a few feet, which made all the standing partiers (myself included) shriek involuntarily and shift in confused unison toward the house. The back supports went next, dropping us another foot or two and shifting us back out in the other direction, toward the yard. I have an amazingly vivid memory of my Aunt Jeanie lurching forward and crashing into my chest, a look of total disorientation on her face. Finally, the last wooden supports holding us off the ground succumbed to the weight, and the entire deck collapsed to the ground.
It was a short enough fall and, due to the staggered drop, no one was badly hurt. (My future mother-in-law was bonked on the head by a speaker and on the shoulder by a falling beam, which did hurt. She eventually became my ex-mother-in-law, though, so no big worries.)
Obviously, the supporting structure was flawed. The anchor was a two-by-six screwed through a metal plate into the house, which took most of the weight. A pair of two-by-fours had supported the end farthest from the house. This worked fine in the beginning, but over the years, water had seeped through cracks in the plate and rotted away the wood. When all those bodies were on the deck at the party, the weakened wood finally gave up the ghost. But the deck itself was largely intact, a big rectangle of beams that had been nailed into joists; a hobbled giant deprived of its legs, now lying on the ground in my backyard.
My father resolved to salvage it and reattach it to the house.
This time he would support the deck with five concrete footings—one at each corner and another right in the middle. Rather than move the beast, he and my brother pried away a few boards where each support would go and used a post-hole digger (a tool for making deep narrow holes, e.g., the kind you'd need for a basketball hoop) to dig the holes for the tube footings, which they filled with concrete. Then Dad hired a contractor to bolt a sturdy new plate through the side of the house. (Sure, it pained him to pay someone, but this was a serious safety issue, and the last thing he wanted was a repeat of what happened during the graduation party.) The combination of these two things—the strength of footings and the stabilizing effect of the steel plate—would give the deck the support it needed. But they still needed to somehow lift the thing.
I had moved to New York City to embark on my postcollege life, so my father and brother were on their own with a deck weighing a good seven hundred pounds at (more or less)
ground level. Duncan had been a linebacker on our high-school football team, and my dad was no slouch in the strength department, either, but it would have taken a young Schwarzenegger and his lifting buddy Franco Columbu to move the thing without help. The plate (through which they would anchor the deck to the house) had been lowered from its previous position but remained a seemingly unreachable three feet off the ground.
Dad, now a retired restaurateur, is an optimist about many things, especially his odds when faced with a task that would cause most men to seek professional help. But there was no way that he was going to admit defeat to the laws of physics or, worse, pay another dime for assistance on reattaching this deck.
With a steely glint of confidence in his eye, he looked at my brother and gave the order. "Go get all the car jacks you can find."
Duncan raised an eyebrow of concern and confusion, but he set to the task like Sancho Panza to my father's Don Quixote. Soon he had retrieved four car jacks from the garage. Two were mighty 1970s beasts, relics from the days when jacks could lift eighteen-wheelers, or at least a '71 Bonneville; the other two were flimsier jacks from Japanese cars. My dad outlined his plan.
They positioned a jack beneath each corner of the deck and began cranking, using the devices in a way their designers had never imagined. Dad would give one jack a few cranks, then move to the next, cranking that one a bit to try and keep the mighty deck somewhat even. Duncan followed his lead on the opposite side. And like a large, lumbering animal rising from a long nap, the deck slowly rose, inch by inch.
My dad, sweating profusely in the humid Jersey air, wiped his brow and took a mighty slug of Coke every few cranks. Duncan, after initial doubts, began to believe. Dad cranked. My brother cranked. Higher came the deck.
It wasn't until the surface was about a foot off the ground that the peril of the situation began to reveal itself. The deck began to teeter. Seven hundred pounds of wood were now being supported by four car jacks, and things were looking dicey.
But Dad was unstoppable. They kept on cranking, getting that deck closer and closer to its target. When it was even with the footings, a yardstick's length off the ground, they oh-so-gingerly removed the jacks. With the deck now supported by the footings, they were able to rock it gently into its final position. Then they screwed long bolts through the holes that had been drilled through the foundation wall. Inside the basement, my father put an eight-inch-long chunk of two-by-four over each bolt (way too much wood, but that added to the homemade, seat-of-your-pants effect) and anchored them with nuts. A few twists of the ratchet and the deck was secured to the house. A few more screws and the old boards were back in place.
The next weekend, I drove home to Jersey to join my family for Sunday-night dinner. As the sun was setting, we hauled the old gas grill, which had survived the crash, from its temporary backyard home and put it back on the deck, where it belonged. Dad grilled a few steaks, Mom made mashed potatoes, and the four of us dined as a family on our new old deck.
It was a few feet lower than it used to be, and now there was a step from its floor up to the house. But it was solid. Every now and then the old man would stomp his feet on the boards and give us a look and a lift of his brow. His satisfied smile said,
See, I told you I could do it with a car jack.
David S. Murphy is an insurance executive living in Scotts-dale, Arizona. Inspired by his father's unique style of problemsolving, he occasionally walks his dog on a treadmill.
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